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Jamaica and Columbus High School supporters pack hearings

From Queens to Brooklyn, hundreds of teachers, students, and alumni poured into auditoriums last night to defend their high schools from closure.

In Queens, supporters of Jamaica High School turned out in droves for the public hearing, a meeting also attended by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott and some of the Department of Education’s top brass.

The arguments against phasing out Jamaica and replacing it with several small schools in the same building were similar to those voiced at a question-and-answer session with DOE officials held at the school last month, which also drew an angry crowd.

When one speaker pointed out Walcott’s presence in the back of the auditorium, audience members rose from their seats, turned around to face him, and chanted, “Save Jamaica High School.”

The Queens representative on the Panel for Educational Policy, Dmytro Fedkowski, asked the DOE to postpone the board’s vote on the proposals until the department releases more information about how the closure decisions were made.

“These proposals seem to be moving forward at an alarming rate,” he said.

Fedkowski has one of 13 votes that will determine the fate of the 20 schools slated for closure. He said he is still unsure how he will vote at the panel meeting on January 26.

“We haven’t made a decision yet,” Fedkowski told me after testifying.

The lack of clear criteria for the phase-out decisions has been a common criticism of the plans, one that was also made last week by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer.

DOE officials cite the school’s low enrollment and stagnant four-year graduation rates, and argue that smaller schools will better serve Queens students.

Critics of closing Jamaica say the school is educating a needier group of students, who frequently need longer than four years to graduate and who some observers argue are often excluded from the city’s small schools.

Robert Klugman, an alumnus of the school who has also taught there for 24 years, said that Jamaica graduates are prepared for the world, no matter how long it takes them to get their diploma. He quoted a remark from Chancellor Joel Klein, who asked what parent would send their student to a school with persistently low graduation rates like Jamaica.

“I’ll tell you who,” Klugman said. “The parent who knows that when their student walks out of this school, they are ready not only for life but also for college.”

In the Bronx, students, teachers, and alumni of Global Enterprise Academy and Christopher Columbus High School also came out to argue against plans to close them. Supporters of Columbus make the same case that Jamaica’s advocates do: in the last several years the school has been deluged with some of the highest-need students in the city and given almost no help in educating them.

“I don’t expect a student who comes to this country in their junior year of high school to graduate at the same time as someone who has been here for 18 years,” said one Columbus student. “If you came to Albania, to my country, I wouldn’t expect that of you either.”

Supporters of Global Enterprise, a small high school that opened in 2003 inside the Columbus building, said the school was too new and had not been given a chance to succeed. Others said it was nonsensical to close the school when the DOE has acknowledged that the school doesn’t meet their criteria for closing.

“What you’re asking is for a school to be phased out that was restructured in January of 2009,” said Global Enterprise principal Michelle Joseph, who has only worked at the school for a year and a half.

“This is an indictment of your procedure. It’s a political maneuver and you’re teaching these students that education and improvement actually do not work.”